The #Me Too movement has triggered a sharp increase in the past year in the number of women here filing domestic abuse complaints against their husbands, according to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
“It could be that women are more comfortable in speaking out and getting help,” said Nechama Bakst, director of family violence services at Met Council. “It’s no longer taboo. People feel more comfortable talking about it because it affects every community.”
David Greenfield, Met Council’s chief executive officer, noted that the number of domestic abuse complaints his agency handled jumped from 701 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, to 841 in the last fiscal year, an increase of 20 percent.
“Clients have told us that they now feel more comfortable coming forward because there is more awareness of the issue than there was in the past,” he said. “This is an issue that has become part of the public discussion and hopefully there is less of a stigma surrounding it.” (About half of the clients Met Council serves are Jewish.)
Lori Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, which is dedicated to empowering women and girls through physical and economic security, said she is not surprised by the increase in reported cases.
“What those of us who work in the field know is that this is part of an entire tapestry where oppressive behavior, violence, rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse are all part of the continuum of violence,” she said. “The #Me Too movement has been a catalyst for people to feel more compelled to speak out and be willing to speak out; for many, they feel more of an urgency to speak out. For many people, there is still a stigma that is associated with speaking out, but the hope is that the more people who speak out, the more we take action and people will feel empowered to step up and speak out.
But the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence argues against “conflating the issue of domestic violence with sexual harassment.”
“Let’s put leaving a domestic abuse situation in the context of being a prisoner of war,” the organization said on its website. “The practicality is that sometimes you can’t leave. Victims are afraid their abusers are going to harm or even kill them if they walk out the door, or they’re afraid their abusers are going to take their kids, close all the bank accounts, or find them later and shoot them, or that they love their abusers and just want the abuse to stop. There is a lack of understanding and a lack of empathy for victims of domestic violence and it needs to be addressed.”
Bakst said women are leaving their husbands not only for domestic abuse but for emotional abuse and financial difficulties.
“Women come in for physical, emotional and financial reasons — and we usually see a combination of them all,” she said. “We had a case of a husband giving his wife $50 for food for the week and then complaining when there was no food on the table.”
Greenfield said that about one-third of the Met Council’s domestic abuse cases are referred from the network of 15 Jewish community centers in their coverage area, which includes the city and Westchester, Rockland and Nassau counties. Another one-third of its cases are referred by other Jewish and non-Jewish social service agencies. And about 40 percent of its cases are brought to Family Justice Centers the city has opened in each of the five boroughs.
These are multicultural, walk-in facilities that bring together professionals from multiple social and legal service agencies to help survivors of domestic violence, elder abuse and sex trafficking. Among service providers at the centers include: case managers, counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, financial advisors, lawyers, domestic violence prevention officers and city sheriffs to provide help with serving civil court documents.
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Greenfield said that Met Council, which is the largest Jewish social service agency in America, has its own staff at each center. He stressed that his clients come from a variety of backgrounds, rich and poor. “Once they identify themselves as Jewish, they are referred to us,” he said.
It is because of the increase in domestic violence cases that Greenfield said Met Council has decided to expand its work in this area. For the first time, he said, Met Council raised funds to send children involved in these cases to summer camp. Greenfield said $100,000 was raised and that this money, combined with discounts offered by the camps themselves, was used to send 100 children from low income families to camp this summer. Most of the campers – ages 7 to 14 – were sent to day camps, but some were sent to sleepaway camps because of their family’s needs.
“We are client-centered and want to address the needs of our clients,” Bakst explained. “If that was the safest solution for them, we try hard to make it happen for that family.”
She said that during the school year the mothers know that their children are in school, freeing them up to work and earn a living. But a problem occurs in the summer when the kids are home while they are out working.
“One woman from a religious part of Brooklyn has 12 kids and we were able to send five [those still living at home] to camp,” Bakst said. “She has no family support and the choice of camps was hers. The children went to separate boys’ and girls’ camps and they had a great time. … It’s important that these kids have a fun summer free of trauma so that the parent can provide for the basic needs of the family while knowing the kids are in a safe space.”
Bakst said it is hoped that the camp program can be expanded next year so that all of the eligible children – perhaps 300 or more – could also receive full camp scholarships.
Although the City Council provided Met Council with a $375,000 grant this year with the expectation that it will be increased 10 percent next year, Bakst said all of the camp scholarship money is raised privately through donations, fundraisers or foundations. The city funds are used exclusively to provide services to victims.
Nearly all of the 100 children sent to camp this summer were Jewish and about half were Orthodox.
One of the major supporters of these programs is City Councilman Alan Maisel (D-Brooklyn), who said he believes one reason for the increasing number of domestic abuse clients is the fact that these services are now available.
“For a long time, people lived in agony,” he said. “Twenty years ago, where would they have gone? But now, if you have a program to deal with it, people are more likely to avail themselves of these services. Particularly in the Orthodox community, people are not likely to reveal their troubles. … I would suspect that many in the Orthodox community have never heard of the #MeToo movement. I think what we are seeing are changes in cultural mores and that people understand they don’t have to put up with this.
“Even though some in the Orthodox community are less inclined to communicate with the rest of the world, things get through. We had an American author, Henry Thoreau, who said, ‘People are living lives of quiet desperation.’ When you pass people on the street, you have no idea what is going on in their lives, and most don’t tell others; they deal with their misery.”